The problem with maternity discrimination and the mumpreneur
If employment conditions were more just, fewer mothers would have to go it alone..
During my maternity leave I had a conversation with a guy at a party, where he regretfully told me that as long as men couldn’t give birth, equality would never be a reality. Perhaps women just aren’t meant to work, he concluded. Maybe not! I replied brightly, later deciding not to tell him he was trailing toilet paper from his shoe.
I felt really lucky a couple of months later, to return to a job that I care about where they agreed to let me work from home one day a week. Especially as I saw so many friends of friends made redundant weeks after having their babies, or encouraged to leave just before in a flurry of meetings in which they were chastised for not having replied to emails with the correct greeting or for taking the full hour for lunch. Even the wealthy aren’t immune. Keira Knightley, upon returning to work this week after having a baby, talked about Britain’s “archaic” maternity laws. “You need to be a family unit, not just have the guy there for two weeks and then go back to work and the mother is left desperately trying to figure it out,” she said of paternity leave, the new rules on which will only have an effect if businesses actively encourage fathers to take the time off, and if colleagues don’t quietly roll their eyes.
More than three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers – the equivalent of 390,000 of us – experience what they call “negative and potentially discriminatory treatment” and what my friends call “fuckery” at work each year. A new report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission confirms the stories I heard in those long mornings pushing buggies round parks with NCT survivors, that 11% of women are pushed out of their jobs following maternity leave – around 54,000 a year. And because of this, British businesses are losing £280m in hiring, training, payouts and lost productivity every year. All to avoid a bit of change.
And, as if the arrogance and unfairness of this wasn’t enough, then, THEN you realise one of the side-effects of all these pregnant redundancies was the invention of the “mumpreneur”. I can’t help but imagine the 54,000 newly unemployed mothers as a wounded army, stranded after the war ends, looking out at the sea with a mixture of hope and fear. Inevitably, some will deal with this by launching a linen baby-sling company. Perhaps a business selling personalised suede nappy bags, or organic cot bedding, or £200 mittens. I know I’m being a patronising dick, but do put that aside for a second, stick it over by the WaterWipes, and ask whether these women would have launched their unnecessary businesses if they weren’t themselves feeling superfluous. If they hadn’t had their careers cut off at the elbow as soon as they felt their first child kick. If the companies they worked for had taken the time to reshape around their female staff, and adapt to new schedules rather than just shrugging, “Can’t.”
I feel similarly about the weight of mummy blogs that threatens to sink the internet. For every Mumsnet there are a thousand Mumsnots, either reports on how many times its author has cried that day, the comments a circle-jerk of struggle, or else a filtered reverie of a perfect life, necessary to wangle free yogurt. As time goes on, I’m starting to find one as fantastical as the other. Even in the honesty blogs, it’s not possible to be truly honest. Because to do that would surely mean saying: “I want real people to talk to. This is not enough.” Again, I’m being dickish, but between the lines you so often see a woman who wants to be recognised, who wants to be around people and produce something that people need, who has found themselves blunted, without a point.
It is possible to run a small business and have children. It should also be possible to run a big business and have children, and to be an employee, and to invent something unrelated to your child’s bathtime. Starting a business is isolating, it’s low-paid, it’s difficult to plan a future – it’s often a last resort. The modern view of a self-employed mum officing at her kitchen table says more about crippling childcare costs and inhospitable workplace cultures than it does a utopian future where we can have it all. Maternity discrimination birthed the mumpreneur. If that doesn’t get you angry enough to encourage change, nothing will.